March 17, 2017
Origins and Celebrations – All About St. Patrick’s Day
Every March 17, people all around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that’s come to be associated with Irish culture, the color green, big parades, and more. Not everyone knows the real story behind St. Patrick’s Day, however, which commemorates the death of the real St. Patrick in 461 AD.
Who Was St. Patrick?
One big misconception is that St. Patrick was Irish himself–but he was in fact born under the name Maewyn Succat in either Scotland or England around 370-390 AD, areas that were controlled by the Romans at the time. His family was quite wealthy and aristocratic, and likely not especially religious. At the age of 16, St. Patrick was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he probably worked as a shepherd for six years. Then, according to his writings, he had a vision that told him to escape Ireland and flee to Britain. Soon after he felt a calling to religion, and he moved to Gaul (modern-day France) where he joined a monastery and eventually became a bishop.
St. Patrick then returned to Ireland and spent over two decades tending to Catholics living there and converting the Gaelic Irish to Christianity. Despite being arrested several times, he managed to establish monasteries, schools and churches. After his death he was originally forgotten, but by the 9th century AD he had been acknowledged as the patron saint of Ireland.
Symbols of St. Patrick’s Day
According to one legend, St. Patrick combined a pagan image of the sun with the image of a cross to create the Celtic Cross. He was more popularly believed to have used the 3-leaf shamrock-long a symbol of Ireland, rebirth, and the season of Spring-to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity, since the number three had a lot of significance in pagan beliefs.
One popular legend is that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. In fact, there haven’t been any snakes in Ireland since at least the last ice age, since the water around the island is too cold for them to swim across! Another misconception is that St. Patrick himself is associated with the color green; in fact, he’s got his own color, a shade of sky blue called St. Patrick’s Blue.
St. Patrick’s Day, though, is definitely associated with the color green, a symbol of Irish national pride (it’s on the Irish flag), as well as many of the things associated with the holiday and the season: shamrocks, the return of plant life, and even Leprechauns. These mythical fairies are a holdover from Irish folklore, and are known for trickery, and for jealously guarding their treasure at the end of the rainbow.
Until 1737, St. Patrick’s Day was simply a holy feast day celebrated in Ireland. St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, usually a time of fasting for Catholics, but prohibitions against the consumption of meat and alcohol were set aside for the day so that people could break their fast and celebrate.
Since the 1990s St. Patrick’s Day has definitely become more secular and cultural in focus in Ireland, but for much of its history, celebrations in Ireland remained a modest, humble affair, involving simply attending mass and sharing a meal. Irish pubs were even closed on March 17 in Ireland until the 1970s!
St. Patrick’s Day meals have traditionally included items such as soda bread, shepherd’s pie, and corned beef and cabbage, which was originally the best meal that poor Irish-American immigrants could afford (in Ireland, the meal is more commonly eaten with lamb or bacon).
St. Patrick’s Day has also come to be associated with excessive revelry and drinking alcohol, in particular Irish Whiskey and beer (often dyed green), although these come more from American traditions than traditional Irish practices.
In America, the holiday was first widely celebrated in Boston in 1737, and annual parades began in New York City in 1762, traditionally celebrating not only Irish heritage but military veterans, firefighters and police. The modern New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade is over 5 hours long, has over 150,000 parade participants, and draws over 3 million people lined up along the 1.5 mile parade route. It’s still one of the world’s oldest annual parades, and the largest in the US.
Although the White House in Washington, DC is known for dying its fountain green, Chicago is best known for turning its river green for St. Patrick’s Day. The dye was originally used to trace illegal dumping, but in 1962 workers realized it would be a clever way to celebrate the holiday. The green dye is vegetable-based, and the river stays green for just a few hours.
Over 100 US cities hold annual St. Patrick’s Day parades, including Philadelphia and New Orleans. The holiday is also celebrated in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and even Russia.
Of course, Dublin, Ireland has its own annual celebration including parades and fireworks, with over 1 million participants. The first official St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin was not held until 1931, and it was not turned into a major festival until 1996. Since then it’s gotten larger every year, becoming not just a source of pride among Irish-American immigrants, but Irish around the world–along with anyone who wants to “wear the green” and become Irish for a day.